Nicholas F. Brady tilts back his head, and through his glasses it can be difficult to tell whether his eyes are closed, whether he is asleep or awake. Then he picks up his train of thought and speaks, occasionally lapsing into half sentences like his boss George Bush: "I think we should leave the tax code more or less where it is. Still pond. No moving."

The accent is distinguished more by class than place. And his turns of phrase are from another era. Banks and savings and loan institutions are "as different as chalk and cheese." The spending constraints imposed by last year's budget agreement forced the Bush administration to "make the cloth fit the size of the coat." The recent rise in German interest rates was no surprise: "The tea leaves were in the tea cup for some period of time."

If his speaking manner seems to be from another era, the 60-year-old Treasury secretary often seems to belong to another town. "Nick doesn't play the game," said a veteran Washington banking lobbyist. In a city where public figures crave recognition, Brady is self-effacing. In a city where politicians try to mold their own images, Brady is indifferent. In a city where people are beholden to many, Brady is beholden to no one save his close friend George Bush.

"I've just thought that if you do things, people will look at it afterward and either say 'well done' or 'badly done,' " Brady said, shrugging off negative publicity.

His style, or lack of it, is both a vulnerability and a strength. Some say Brady is not just relaxed, but lackluster. His style leaves him open to attack from rivals and critics, but it lends him credibility as well. "When you're the president's best friend, you have a constituency of one. It doesn't matter what others think. You are an automatic power and player," said Tom Korologos, a lobbyist with Timmons & Co. who often works for the administration.

Last week, the Treasury secretary unveiled a plan for the most sweeping overhaul of the financial industry in half a century, an ambitious legislative package with something to offend almost everyone. It would challenge the most skillful politician, much less a Cabinet member so outwardly diffident.

The fate of the package will depend in part on the commitment of a president distracted by war. In part, it will depend upon Brady's own power of persuasion, on his ability to tailor a bill that can get through Congress and on his sense of timing. Brady believes that Congress must act to strengthen the banking industry and that many of the changes he is proposing are happening in the marketplace anyway.

Here his style might be a strength. Few lawmakers believe he has any self-serving political motive. "I'm not worried about 'will they win or will they lose' because I know it's right," Brady said. He added that even though the legislation might have no better than a 50-50 chance of passage, he at least wants "to get the ball in front of you and kick it toward the goal."

Still, few are optimistic. "Congress has been unwilling for 50 years to act in this area," said Thomas "Lud" Ashley, president of the American Bank Holding Association. "Whether Brady can wave a wand and get a Congress that has been understandably afraid to change anything after the thrift fiasco is very questionable."

And yet, the Treasury secretary has been underestimated before. When he proposed Third World debt relief, it appeared farfetched. By now, half a dozen countries, including Mexico, have adopted modified versions of the Brady Plan. At first, said Peter McPherson of Bank of America, "Banks thought it went too far and developing countries thought it didn't go far enough, but it has been good for the countries and good for the banks."

And Brady has waded into the long-neglected morass of the savings and loan crisis. "Though his projections were wrong at first, at least he has faced up to the problems with S&Ls," said Anthony Solomon, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and chairman of S.G. Warburg & Co.

While he appeared to be taking a back seat in budget talks last year and to be abdicating Treasury's lead on taxes, Brady's actions in the politically bruising negotiations look better in retrospect. A congressional participant in the budget negotiations said Brady played a constructive role. "When Darman and Sununu would throw temper tantrums ... Brady would sort of smooth things down," he recalled, referring to Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu. "It was like a mature man apologizing to others when children spill food on the floor."

A Rapport With Bush Despite Brady's occasional gaffes on exchange rates or economic statistics, periodic rumors of his departure from the Bush administration have proven premature. He remains one of the most influential Cabinet members, with open access to and real rapport with the president.

Perhaps only Secretary of State James A. Baker III has as close a relationship with Bush. Yet Baker and Brady are as different as, well, chalk and cheese. Baker is the master of spin, whereas Brady doesn't seem to know what the word means. Baker may be the president's closest friend with his own agenda, but Brady is the president's closest friend without an agenda of his own.

"He's always down the middle. He doesn't throw any curves," said the president's brother Jonathan Bush. "At the same time, he is not a yahoo so you {don't} get tired of him." Bush said that the president also values Brady because the Treasury secretary is "discreet" and "doesn't seek the limelight for himself."

Given how much the president values loyalty among his aides, Brady's long record of support also puts him in high standing.

They met through Jonathan Bush, whom Brady met while a teenager. They were passing acquaintances until 1976, when Brady, then chairman of the investment banking firm Dillon Read & Co., tried to hire George Bush, then finishing his stint at the Central Intelligence Agency, to set up a Dillon Read office in Texas. Bush declined, but agreed to join the board of Purolator Inc., where Brady was chairman and the two saw each other every month.

In 1979, Brady co-chaired the Bush presidential campaign in New Jersey, but Bush withdrew from the race just before the primary.

Both came from privilege. Brady was born into a wealthy Irish-American family. He grew up on a 4,000-acre estate in New Jersey and attended Yale (one year ahead of Jonathan Bush) where he captained a national championship squash team. He attended Harvard Business School, from which he graduated in 1954.

Brady then joined Dillon Read, whose chairman, C. Douglas Dillon, was a friend of Brady's father and lived on a neighboring estate. By 1971, Brady became head of the firm.

During his years at Dillon Read, Brady formed many of his views on the financial industry he now seeks to overhaul. Brady's Wall Street was not the Wall Street of the 1980s. His was the era of relationships, before the decade of the deal. Dillon Read was a conservative house with blue-chip clients: H.J. Heinz Co., National Cash Register, General Mills Inc. and others. "The firm had historical relationships and he was responsible for a good many of them," said Felix Rohatyn, an investment banker at Lazard Freres & Co.

In the 1980s, when other firms jumped into the debt-driven leveraged buyout business, Dillon Read was more cautious. Brady disapproved of the LBO craze and successfully defended Unocal Corp. from a hostile takeover attempt.

"We stuck to our knitting," said Dillon Read Chairman John Birkelund, who succeeded Brady. "The result is the firm is stable: No people being put in jail, no loans, no lawsuits, and you don't read about us in the newspapers. That's a legacy we're proud of."

During the 1980s, Brady filled two roles that have served him well as Treasury secretary. First, he filled the final 10 months of the unexpired term of New Jersey Sen. Harrison Williams. Second, Brady he chaired a commission to review the causes of the 1987 stock market crash.

Though brief, Brady's time as senator gives him floor privileges in the Senate chamber and an institutional link. He regularly attends Tuesday Republican lunches and roams the floor. During budget talks last year, he and Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) spent a weekend at the Eastern Shore, which some lawmakers believe helped break the logjam over taxes. Whereas some members of Congress do not trust Bush budget director Darman, Brady is greeted warmly. "The Hill accepts him," said Korologos.

The stock market study and the mechanisms adopted to control volatile markets also helped Brady during the 1989 market scare.

"Calmness and quietness are the keys to my job," Brady said. "It is important that it be done quietly and without fanfare. My role is to be bland enough that the world keeps on going."

Not everyone agrees with Brady's own job description. He lacks the aggressiveness Baker had as Treasury secretary, and he does not have the same command of detail that Darman possesses, say members of both the administration and Congress. Moreover, Brady's ability to read long reports is hampered by mild dyslexia. Some criticize him for not playing a stronger role in meetings of finance ministers from the seven largest industrial nations, the Group of Seven.

Solomon said, "I feel there could have been more effective G-7 coordination ... with regard to the high interest rates in other countries and the excessive pressure that puts on the dollar." Scott Pardee, a foreign exchange expert at Yamaichi Securities Co., said Brady's frequent criticisms of the Federal Reserve for not lowering interest rates contradicts the signals the U.S. intervention to bolster the dollar is sending to foreign exchange markets. But Brady's loyalists say that the weakness of the dollar and the decline of the G-7 process are not Brady's fault. "He is stuck with a $300 billion deficit and a recession," said Rohatyn. "I wouldn't hold him responsible for that." Steve Axilrod, a former Fed official and chairman of Nikko Securities Co. in New York, said Brady's stewardship comes at a time when Japan and Germany are "turning inward" for their own economic and political reasons.

Some fault the Treasury secretary for failing to transfer control of margins on futures markets away from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which does not augur well for his financial overhaul. But Treasury officials say they will return to the issue.

Conscious of Brady's friendship with Bush, no administration official will go on record criticizing him. Privately, one administration official said Brady has only a vague grasp of economic indicators. Another said the United States should be forging the economic side of a new world order. But Bank of America's McPherson, former deputy Treasury secretary, said, "Nick Brady isn't interested in creating a new world economic order, and we don't need one."

The First Friend If some of Brady's colleagues carp in private, however, they pay respect to the First Friend. Darman, for example, not known for his humility, often defers to Brady at press conferences and sometimes calls Brady several times a day.

And one role that Brady is clear about is that of defending the interests of George Bush. He unsuccessfully lobbied against the inclusion of a cut in taxes on capital gains in this year's budget proposal, believing that it would hurt the president politically as he prepares for his reelection campaign. When he lost that battle, he urged the creation of a commission to try to depoliticize the issue.

Brady said that he and the president "share the same values and judgment and when there are matters I can help him on outside the Treasury, I do." Brady added that "I don't bother him with a lot of Brady's conclusions on warfare. He's busier than he used to be so it's incumbent upon me and others of his friends to make sure, with all he has to do that we don't bother him with a lot of inconsequentia."